Cannes Review: Melancholia

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier's 2009 Cannes film, Antichrist, mixed explicit sex and graphic violence as it depicted the dark and brutal collapse of a marriage. The director claimed the film reflected his disturbed mental and emotional state.

Apparently, he was in a happier place when he made this year's Cannes competition entry, Melancholia. But while the film is far less shocking, it is certainly no comedy. This time it is not just a marriage that comes to an end, but the entire planet – which von Trier destroys twice.

And he doesn't make us wait for the end of the world, instead getting down to business immediately with an operatic prologue of painterly, slow-motion images cut to the overture of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, as the eponymous planet collides with Earth.

Partly these are visions of the coming apocalypse, partly they're the visions of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who appears to be a happy newlywed. But behind her happy demeanour is a woman in crisis. By the end of the first of the film's two chapters, she has lost her job and her husband, and looks to be losing her mind as well.

In the second half, her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to care for her, but as the end of the world gets ever closer, she begins to fall apart, while Justine grows stronger – her depression making her more prepared for death.

Dunst is convincing; the explosive climax delivers an emotional kick, and the visuals are ravishingly beautiful and audacious. That said, Von Trier struggles to justify the 130-minute running time.

Originally published in The Scotsman, 21/05/11

Cannes Review: The Tree Of Life

Terrence Malick has only made a handful of films in 38 years. So when a new one comes along, it is always an event - and yesterday's world premiere of his The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and the very busy Jessica Chastain, who also had
the disturbing apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter in Cannes, was no exception.

Filmed three years ago, the press-shy auteur's fragmented epic is challenging, bloated, sometimes boring, poignant and one of the most visually breathtaking films since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Book-ended by a haunted-looking Sean Penn, the film is both an intimate family drama and an epic overview of the origins and fragility of life. With monumental ambition, Malick depicts the fiery birth of planet Earth from cosmic dust, and the origins of life on land. A vaguely twee scene with dinosaurs appears to show the beginnings of empathy, before the beasties are wiped out by a meteor.

After the awe-inspiring visual splendour of these elemental scenes, the sections focusing on the story of Penn's character's childhood in a small Texas town in the 1950s feel a little bathetic. His parents, played by Chastain and Pitt, personify the eternal struggle between good and bad that is at the heart of Malick's films. She is grace and love; he is ego, anger and disappointment.

Here the creation of the Earth becomes the development of a boy from childhood innocence to adult disillusionment and, his claustrophobic environment of vertiginous tower blocks seems to be saying, to a way of living that is estranged from nature and spiritually bankrupt.

The mixture of boos and applause that erupted at the end of the Cannes screening suggested the film will divide audiences. But then Malick has been doing that ever since The Thin Red Line. But love The Tree of Life or loathe it, it is impossible to fault Malick's ambition and not to admire a man who is making big, personal, non-genre films at a time when many filmmakers are playing it safe. Long may he continue. 
Originally published in The Scotsman, 17/05/11


Cannes Links

Half-way through the 64th Cannes Film Festival, my personal favourite films are Terrence Malick's audacious and visually awe-inspiring The Tree of Life, and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's disturbing psychological horror movie, We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Prize for the grimmest film so far goes to the Australian real-life drama Snowtown, about a serial killer in Adelaide in the 1990s. The film's uncompromising approach to its subject matter had people squirming in their seats and leaving the cinema in disgust.

Best interviewees so far include the Olsen twins' younger sibling Elizabeth, and the female lead of The Tree of Life and apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter, Jessica Chastain. 

Links to Cannes coverage: